The City as a Living System: A Design Research Agenda

This is the text of my plenary talk at the Design x Collaborative Cities conference, 28 and 29 October 2018, Shanghai. It was hosted by the College of Design and Innovation (D&I) at Tongji University, where I am a visiting professor, and DESIS Network. (Here is the 25 minute video).

The industrial age distracted us from a whole-systems understanding of the world.

Paving over the soil, and filling our lives with media, obscured our interdependency with living systems.

The creation of cities that are habitable for all of life, not just human life, will determine the future relevance of design research.

We must learn to think of the places where we live as ecosystems, not as machines.

We need to embrace biodiversity, and local economic activity, as better measures of a city’s health than the amount of money that flows through it.

And we need to foster new connections between people, and place, to bring new opportunities to life.

Place. Care. Value.

A design research agenda along these lines is already taking shape.

The practices of ecological urbanism, or civic ecology, study how to help living organisms, and their environment, thrive together. They enrich city design with the insights of ecology, botany, climatology, hydrology, geology, and geography.

This ecological approach is not preoccupied by the the concepts of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ .

On the contrary, it involves

Posted in [no topic] | Comments closed

From Oil Age to Soil Age: Pathways to Sustainability

On the occasion of my lecture (with the above title) at the Design Museum of Barcelona, during the Victor Papanek exhibition, I was interviewed about relational design, the potential for social and ecological transformation, and the mixed blessings of terms such as ‘future’ or ‘resilience’

Q: You define yourself as a bioregional designer. What does this mean?

JT: During my professional career, I’ve been trying to understand why all the arguments about the damage we’re doing to the planet have never stuck. What I’ve understood is that we had been having discussions in a very abstract sense about words such as ‘sustainability’, which don’t necessarily touch us in our daily lives. There’s a metabolic gap between the natural and the man-made world. Because of this split, we’ve been able to carry on being told the world is in sick condition, but not really feeling it was our responsibility. This is where the subject of a bioregion comes in. Place has a power to connect people to the reality of the situation and to provide a context for networking with people that we would otherwise disagree with. Bioregion is an alternative to all those abstract words, I use it to provoke people to ask “How can we make our place healthier, and have a better future?”.

Q: Your last book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today, looks into a future economic scenario. What is the role of design?

JT: It is diverse, but has a certain common thread: design is more about relationships between people than it is about products. The kind of practice present in all those projects is how

Posted in [no topic] | Comments closed

Civic Ecology as a Design Space

What is innovative in design today? What urgent issues is the discipline tackling? For this special feature in Domus Magazine, Valentina Croci talks with Paola Antonelli, Aric Chen and John Thackara. Paola muses on the disturbed relation between us and nature, the subject of her (then) forthcoming show at the Triennale di Milano. From his observatory in Hong Kong, Aric Chen speculates on strategies and behaviours that can be determined by design. John Thackara identifies civic ecology as a space filled with opportunities for micro-actions by design.

Domus Magazine, March 2018

Posted in development & design, social innovation & design, [no topic] | Comments closed

When Value Arises from Relationships, not from Things

The following texts by John Thackara were selected and republished by P2P Magazine
How To Thrive In the Next Economy: Preface to the Chinese edition (July 2019)
When Value Arises From Relationships, Not From Things (interview with Valentina Croci in Domus Magazine, April 2018)
Manifesto For Utopias Are Over: Cities Are Living Systems (extract from DAMN magazine, March 2017)
(Healing the Metabolic Rift between Humanity and the Planet (interview with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, December 2017)
John Thackara on Sustainability, Design and Old Growth (February 2017)
John Thackara’s Intimate Tour of the Emerging New Economy (book review by David Bollier, October 2016)
John Thackara on How To Thrive In The Next Economy (interview with Darren Sharp, March 2016)

Posted in [no topic] | Comments closed

“Playing For Time”: creating the conditions for change

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive…Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

In 2004, in the small town of Nexø (above), on the island of Bornholm, in the Baltic Sea, a curious figure is handing out small packages to strangers in the high street. The young woman is dressed in orange, water-resistant clothes that are dirty, smelly and oversized.

Some people accept the proffered package with interest. Others seem doubtful.

Posted in [no topic] | Leave a comment

In an Ecological Civilization, Place is our Professor

I gave a plenary talk (by video) to the China Eco-Civilization Research and Promotion Association (CECRPA) Conference, 17 November 2019.
My focus was an ecological design training platform for designers in China.

会议11月17日:约翰·萨卡拉(John Thackara)全体会议 生态创新培训

In the last 100 years, there have been three eras of design.

During the Industrial Era, design was powerful driver in the rise of mass consumer societies. Design made short-life products desirable to millions of people.

This era saw extraordinary economic growth in money terms.

But on the negative side, as we now know to our cost, this energy-intense and extractive economy depleted non-renewable resources. It also caused a

Posted in [no topic] | Comments closed

December Newsletter

Dates for my 2020 Meetups and Retreats | Report on our Urban-Rural exhibition in China | Next steps for the Social Food Atlas | Recent publications | Thirty-two case-study collections |Five recommended books

For a second year, I’m hosting week-long Meetups|Project Retreats| Residencies at our home in France. If you are a designer, project curator, (post-)grad student, researcher, or writer – and are working on a thesis, project, or book – check out the programme here.

If you need a personal phase-shift right now, we’re also hosting a small number of winter residences.

In November, I curated an exhibition in China called Urban-Rural. Framed by our transition from the oil age to a soil age, its focus was

Posted in [no topic] | Comments closed

People Doing Stuff: Case Study Collections

Words like climate, system, or sustainability are passive. What does work – in reducing the sense of powerlessness and isolation – are examples of real people, taking practical steps, right now. With that lesson in mind, here is a list of case study collections that I’ve found useful, and often inspiring, in my own work.

Traditional Knowledge World Bank
terracing systems, water control, seed sewing…

Ecosystem Restoration Camps
Bolivia, California, Spain, Mexico …

Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI)
bicycle weeder, cotton stripper, fertilizer dibbler…

Honeybee Network, India
traditional knowledge, water systems, forest medicines…

Alternatives India
organic cotton, forest culture, biofences…

L’Atelier Paysan | AgTech Takeback
farming skills, farming tech, self-build

Atlas of Utopias
cargo bikes, community agriculture, social kitchens

Posted in [no topic] | Comments closed

Urban-Rural: 10 Takeaways

The Zhangyan Harvests Future Country Living Festival in Shanghai included an exhibition called Urban-Rural. that I curated. Here are 82 slides of the event. Below are my ten takeaways. Scroll down for Chinese.

1. We’re in a transition from the oil age to the soil age. The projects in Urban-Rural are signals of what the soil age will be like.

2. Urban and Rural are one place, not two. Streaming platforms that connect farmers directly to the city bring that social connectivity (back) to life.

3. Analogue and digital are also one place, not two. For example, Urban-Rural celebrates digital tools that enable citizen participation in ecological agriculture.

4. A farm is not a factory – it’s a social and ecological system. This is why Urban-Rural puts Shanghai’s BIOfarm centre stage – because it connects such diverse participants and activities. Social diversity and biodiversity help each other.Every city and every bioregion needs such a farm.

5. Making things in Urban-Rural, and leaving the land healthier, are a single process. Atelier Luma’s algae platform – that produces 3d cups out of bioplastics – is about ecology, not just production. Every region needs an algae platfom, too.

6. Sustainable fashion in Urban-Rural is practical, not aspirational. ‘Sustainable’ is when the soil-friendliness of regionally-grown fibre is measured, tested and monitored by everyone involved. That’s it.

7. Small engage with Big in Urban-Rural – and on equal terms. The giant construction company and the biofarmer? The homestay platform and village elder? The e-commerce giant, and chicken breeder? The soil age has arrived: we have much to teach each other.

8. Where we learn, and how, matters almost more than what. Place is our professor in the learning hubs on show.

9. Old knowledge and new tech also appear on equal terms in Urban-Rural. Zhangyan Harvests was created by a Tongji university professor (Lou Yongqi) but the wisdom of elders, in their place, is given proper respect.

10. Ushering in the soil age is the great work of our time. We are privileged to be playing a part.




  1. 我们正处在从石油时代向土地时代向土壤时代过渡的阶段。“城—乡”展中列出的项目都是土壤时代将会有的样子。
  2. 一个地方可以既是城市,也是乡村。APP能使都市人成为业余农民,而流媒体平台能让农民直接对接城市,这些都放大了生活与供给之间的关系。
  3. 一个地方可以既是模拟的,也是数字的。“城—乡”欢迎那些能使市民积极参与到生态农业中去的数字工具。
  4. 农场不是工厂。它是一个社会系统和生态系统。“城—乡”记录了那些将多方参与者和活动连接在一起的农场。每一个生物区都需要一个这样的农场。
  5. 在“城—乡”里制作东西,把土地变得更健康,这些过程都很简单。藻类实验室能用生物塑料生产3D杯子,这关乎生态学,而不仅仅是生产而已。
  6. 在“城—乡”里的可持续时尚都是实际可操作的,不是空口说白话。可持续意味着,本地产纤维的土壤友好程度是可以被每一个参与其中的人测量、测试和监控的。就是这么简单。
  7. 在“城—乡”里,弱者能与强者平起平坐。超大型建筑公司和生物农场主?民宿平台与村庄里的老人?电商巨头和养鸡户?土壤时代已经到来:我们有很多东西要互相学习。
  8. 在哪儿学习,怎么学习,几乎比学什么还要重要。人身处的地方就是所展出的这些学习中心里的教授。
  9. 旧知识与新技术在“城—乡”里也是平起平坐的。章堰丰收由虽由同济大学教授娄永琪牵头,却也融汇了章堰当地老人们基于地方的智慧,他们也获得了同样的尊重。
  10. 将世界导向土壤时代,是我们这个时代的重大工作。我们很荣幸能成为其中一份子。
Posted in [no topic] | Comments closed